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Spring 2024

An Interview With Kwamé Ryan

by Jeremy Lamb

Maestro Ryan will start conducting the CSO next season, but we've been enjoying getting to know him better in the meantime. Cellist Jeremy Lamb talks with him about concert preparation, work-life balance, vegetarianism, and his goals for Music Directorship.

Photo credit: Charlotte Observer

First things first: how did the NY Phil debut go?


It went really well! It was intense, a lot of repertoire! I grew up watching a video recording of Zubin Mehta conducting the NY Phil - I watched it on repeat most of my teen years, with Leontyne Price and Itzhak Perlman as soloists. That program was on a video cassette that eventually broke because I watched it so much. So actually conducting the orchestra that was on that recording, even though it's not the same orchestra, but the institution, was just really biographically moving for me.


You live in Freiburg, Germany, and it seems like your career has mostly been Europe-centered. I'm wondering whether, with this appointment here in Charlotte, you may start to have more guest appearances in the States?


Oh, that's already underway! I can see my calendar filling up with United States gigs that were just not on my radar fourteen months ago when I first conducted in Charlotte. And that's a great thing, something I'm happy about because as long as I was working exclusively in Europe, I really wanted to conduct more in the US. I found that I enjoyed the way of working - just a little bit faster, a more direct approach. Sometimes in Europe you get lots of rehearsal, which can be nice with very complex or long works. I think it's better than feeling like you're rushing into a performance, if you have to choose. But there is a happy medium of having just enough rehearsal that I find invigorating. I like the challenge of being able to do a lot in a smaller amount of time.


That's interesting. I don't know if you've experienced this, but sometimes when orchestras plan that extra rehearsal that isn't necessarily needed, then in the first concert we're all a little bit nervous because we've invested so much more. I remember being at New Haven Symphony and feeling really prepared in the dress rehearsal, and then suddenly being nervous, like, "Can we do this again?" And the concert actually didn't go that well.


(Laughs) Yeah, there's something about having just enough time, and that's something that's evolved for me as a concept. When I was a younger conductor I used to rehearse to the absolute bitter end of every rehearsal, and I don't tend to do that anymore because when I feel like we've done enough, then I like to stop. If you feel like there's an understanding of what we're going to do, and how we're going to do it, and it's ready to be delivered, then overheating it doesn't make it better.


And you'll make friends with the musicians too!


Yeah, and I think trust is an underrated commodity in a relationship between artists. One of the things I really appreciated about the CSO when I first conducted there is that I felt like, even with really hard repertoire, I could trust the musicians. And that is very valuable to me. That's the most auspicious start to a potentially long relationship, just a feeling that you're understood, and that you understand what you're getting back and can respond to it in a relaxed and confident way.


I could tell. Your first concert with us, I could tell you were moved - we were all moved. We really loved you! And we felt that trust too.


Yeah, it surprised me, because in my experience it's a rare thing. It's like sifting through sand, and then you're lucky if you find a gold nugget in your prospecting tray. And that's a moment, but you know it when you see it. And if you feel it once in your career - and it's mutual - you're the luckiest conductor ever. It takes stars aligning, it takes a little bit of luck.


You've done a lot of work in opera houses. Was there a specific moment when you began to identify as an opera conductor?


That was what I thought I was going to be, although that came as a second phase in my career. My agent at the time saw that the music directorship at the Freiburg Opera was open, and he said, "I'm going to send you to audition. You're not going to get it. You have no opera experience. But you should definitely go and audition. " And I got it. So there I was, the youngest General Music Director in all of Germany at that time, one of the youngest there had ever been. I was elected at twenty eight. The audition was: conduct Othello, on a Friday night in front of a paying audience... with no rehearsal.


The music nerd in me wants to know how you go about preparing for concerts. Do you conduct in front of a mirror or along with a recording?

No, when I was younger I would conduct in front of a mirror to monitor my technique but I haven't done that in decades. And I normally stay away from recordings if I possibly can, though if I'm meeting with a soloist for the first time and they've recorded the piece, I'll listen to see how they play it. I try to find my own way to the music: I have an elaborate digital workstation at home with thousands of orchestral samples, so if there's a passage I want to understand, I'll play it in and change the tempo and the balances until it sounds the way I want. It's like having an orchestra that never gets tired! 

How often do you get back to Freiburg to just chill?


(Laughs) I don't even know what that means! Well, the first part of that answer is I spend every moment I'm not conducting somewhere else in Freiburg. That's my home base. At least it is at the moment because my partner plays cello in the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. They tour a lot, so we kind of see each other when we see each other, because our lives go like this (gestures wildly in concentric circles). And the chilling part... well, because my office is at home, we have a specific time of day when my work is done, at 7pm. So when the clock strikes 7, it's chilling time, and then it's food and a movie, and a glass of wine.


The first time you conducted here, you broke your baton in the first ten minutes of rehearsal. Are you superstitious about that at all? Was that a sign?


No! (Laughs) It was just an inconvenience. That was mortifying, but it turned out to be an opportunity. It relaxed me. I was like, "I can't believe that just happened. And I'm just gonna roll with it."


I heard you're a vegetarian?


Yep, I became a vegetarian in 2008. I was getting deep into yoga, and I went on a retreat to one of the Greek islands, and they were only serving vegan food. It was a ten-day retreat, and I came back from that retreat just feeling fantastic. I was a vegan until I became the music director of a French orchestra, and then the French disabused me of the folly of trying not to eat dairy. So I went from being a vegan to a vegetarian. The truth is, I can't really live without cheese. So that's fine, I'll just be a vegetarian.


You play double bass, right?


Yeah, I started on piano and voice, and then I took up violin. And that was before I'd even left Trinidad to go to England. I took up the violin just so that I would theoretically have an orchestral instrument in my hands. And then when I arrived at boarding school in England, in my mid-teens, I asked to switch to cello because I loved the cello, and they said, "Nah, we have enough cellists, just be a double bassist."


(Laughs) That's the deeply romantic reason why you picked bass?


Yeah, but It turned out to be serendipitous because I got good enough fast enough to get into the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and that was the most incredible formative experience for me as a conductor, just working with great conductors. The guy who was my desk partner in that orchestra is the principal of the Concertgebouw now. And we got to play together, and when you get imprinted with that kind of musical standard at that age, it's with you forever. It's a programming that's very powerful. But, disclaimer: I don't play double bass anything like as well as I used to - I haven't picked up the instrument for years, and I would be embarrassed to now, especially with the kind of section the CSO has now. I won't be getting anywhere near the instrument anytime soon.


That's too bad, it'd be fun to hear you play a note or two!


Funny, maybe!


Being Music Director of the symphony here requires you to wear a lot of hats - raising money, drawing people in, rehearsing well, conducting good concerts. It's a huge amount to ask of any one person. That said, is there any particular vision for these next couple years in Charlotte that you'd like to bring to life?


Well, one thing that jumps instantly to mind is the difference between being the music director of a European orchestra and an American orchestra in one specific way, which is that European orchestras are, almost across the board, publicly funded. They're subsidized. So the budget for them is provided by the state or the city, usually by both, and you don't have to go looking for money. If you want to do a contemporary music series, one that isn't necessarily going to have a huge audience, but you want to do that for the development of the orchestra and for the development of the audience, you don't have to worry about the fact that you're not going to sell a huge number of tickets for it. You can do things like that just for the profile of the orchestra, so that its outward-facing persona is cutting edge. And that has value. You have to think differently with an American orchestra, I find. What I'm really looking forward to is taking that opportunity to have an impact on the means that the orchestra is working with, shaking hands and talking to people, and making them enthusiastic about supporting the orchestra. Because art is one thing, but the reality is that making a lot of varied and interesting art requires a fair amount of funding. I've never had any role in the development of an orchestra from the ground up, starting with the actual money. I've never had that role before. It's always been, "You just say what we're playing, and make it good".


Are you intimidated?


Not at all. And I wasn't kidding at that first concert when I said that just being able to do the job in English makes it feel so liberating to me. I've been in Germany long enough to speak German like a first language, but it's not my first language, and I'm not 100 percent me in German. I'm another version of me. And the same in French, it's just not 100 percent me. Whereas this opportunity in Charlotte, in a city I feel comfortable and happy in, where I have family and where I feel super invested in the band, I feel like what comes out of my mouth here - it's so me. I don't feel like I'm trying, I just feel like I'm letting it flow, and that's a new experience for me.

Your Perfect Picnic Basket

by Erinn Frechette

Summer Pops is just around the corner so the time to start thinking about creating a
romantic evening filled with symphonic music is now! Your CSO has planned four fantastic June evenings of varied pops music, set at our beautiful Symphony Park at Southpark. All information (including ticket sales) may be found at:

Planning the perfect evening may include putting together a picnic basket. Here are some ideas and pointers to help assemble a delicious light dinner for you and your date!


Planning a basket can be made easier if you think of a general theme to follow. The sky is the limit—anything you can think of will give you focus in selecting your items. Here are some mix-and-match ideas:

  • For a light evening snack try a fruit and cheese basket. Pair any cheeses you like with sliced apples, pears, peaches, berries, watermelon, cantaloupe, etc.

  • For a more substantial meal think about a charcuterie board. You may include sliced meats (salami, prosciutto, sopressata, or sausage), cheeses of your choice (popular cheeses include mozzarella, burrata, parmesan and manchego), garnishes like nuts, cornichons, olives, and cherry tomatos, and starches such as crackers, crostini, pretzels, or sliced French bread. If you choose you may also include some condiments such as stone-ground mustard, chutney, pesto and the like.

  • On its own or as part of your charcuterie board you may enjoy a crackers and spreads basket. Again, pair your starch of choice with pâtés and cheese spreads (Alouette, Borsin, Pimento cheese, etc.).

  • Try a selection of vegetables with dip, hummus, or bean dip. Sliced carrots, peppers, cucumbers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflour….

  • Dessert smorgasbord—self explanatory. Grab (or make) a selection of your favorite sweets! Tarts, petit fours, eclairs, cake pops…. So many good choices!

  • Lastly, try assembling a basket with foods from a specific country or region. Examples include Italian, Greek, Sushi, or Southern BBQ.


Your basket should contain a variety of tastes and textures. You may also want to pair specific wines or beers with your food. To keep your basket tasting fresh it’s recommended not to pack hot items right from the oven (condensation will ruin the texture). Let cooked foods come to room temperature then pack. Finally, try to package your foods as single-serve rather than large dishes that need to be served family style. This makes serving and clean up much easier.


You will also need to think about necessary accessories to take along. Most important is your actual picnic basket. While wicker baskets are stylish, soft-sided coolers may be more practical. To sit on, a large blanket (bring a tarp to place underneath if there was any recent rain) or lawn chairs work beautifully. Remember—Symphony Park requires that patrons use beach chairs (the kind that sit low to the ground) for everyone’s viewing pleasure. Light weight service items (plates/cutlery) make for easy carrying and disposal. Napkins, as well as hand wipes, will keep you and your area nice and clean. Don’t forget bottle and wine bottle openers, and bring along a small plastic bag for refuse. Finally, create some ambience with a candle or two!


Finally, don’t feel like you have to plan alone. There are several wonderful shops around the Charlotte metro area (many with their own sommelier!) to help you assemble your feast. Some of my favorites are:

  • Amélie’s French Bakery and Café or Renaissance Pâtisserie for delicious desserts.

  • Pasta and Provisions, Reid’s Fine Foods, The Culture Shop, Super G Mart, Golden Key European Food Market, and Zygma Polish Deli. All great places to pick up varied food items.

  • Wine shops such as Total Wine, Frugal MacDoogal, Winestore, or Petit Philippe Fine Wine.


Thankfully, Charlotte isn’t lacking in the delicious foods department! These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Have fun exploring what our great city has to offer, and putting together a delectable treat for your evening with the CSO! Happy picnicking!

Bob's CSO

by Ben Geller

Longstanding institutions measure time and space differently than most people. Our CSO started in 1932, and while that may objectively seem like a long time ago to anyone alive right now, considering that we are welcoming only our 12th music director makes that 92 year span seem much shorter. While most conductors rarely stay with any orchestra longer than 10 years, the musicians that make up the band move to a city and build their lives, family, and teaching studios. We (hopefully) become vibrant parts of the musical cultural fabric for decades and generations.  The tenure generations of our colleagues denote epochs, and even though we here at the CSO are celebrating the beginning of a new era with our newest Music Director Kwamé Ryan, we still mourn the all-too-sudden loss of our dear colleague Bob Rydel and remember his myriad contributions to the CSO family and our Charlotte community with profound gratitude.

 Although Bob did not get up on the podium to lead the orchestra with a baton, he helped shape the CSO in more ways than most Music Directors can manage to do with any symphony orchestra. Bob’s breadth and depth of understanding of our industry combined with his many abilities on and off stage, and his longstanding commitment to the quality of music and its presentation as well as to our work environment and the overall health of the CSO, made him an indispensable figure on any musicians' committee, contract negotiation, Mahler concert, or “whiskey committee” meeting. He was a multi-year member of every committee the CSO has ever had. Bob often chaired these committees, and was even a founding member of a few.

Bob represented our musician colleagues and their interests to CSO staff administrators, directing boards, city representatives, and other civic leaders. He held various offices in our local chapter of the Musicians Union AFM Local 342 and helped negotiate the CSO’s collective bargaining agreement several times. This often involved stressful, long hours in the summer months with other dedicated committee members and legal counsel desperately trying to find a way forward with our administration to keep the lights on for our consistently underfunded non-profit. The hours are unpaid, but if it goes well, everyone gets to keep their jobs. 

Although Bob worked tirelessly with our administrators and benefactors, he did not come here to be an administrator. With all of his other commitments and responsibilities, Bob was first and foremost a fantastic hornist. He played third horn in our CSO for 30 years, but we are not alone in loving his playing. Bob would often get called up to play in other major orchestras like the Pittsburgh and Atlanta Symphonies, was regularly featured in Charleston, and had years under his belt in the Jacksonville Symphony before even starting in Charlotte. He had a great clear tone and was able to blend seamlessly with his section or beautifully pierce through the texture of the orchestra when called upon. 

Not only could he consistently play excellently, Bob was able to share his abilities by encouraging and coaxing beautiful playing from students. It is a wonderful and rewarding thing to watch a student succeed and Bob was lucky enough to see a few “make it.” A particularly serendipitous example is actually another of our very own CSO horn colleagues, Andrew Fierova:


“I’ve been so lucky to know Bob as a teacher and mentor as well as a friend and colleague.  There is no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for his caring guidance.  I’ll never forget the day I showed up for my first rehearsal with the faculty orchestra at the Brevard Music Center in 2009. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and had been contemplating quitting horn during the weeks and months before arriving but decided to postpone my decision till the end of summer.  When I sat down in the 4th horn chair, next to Bob, I noticed he was focused and intense.  While feeling extremely nervous, I remember thinking if there ever was a time to bring my A game, it was now.  Sitting next to Bob for that rehearsal was a mind-altering experience. I had never in my life heard anything like it.  His absolute raw power and commitment to the best that he was capable of doing, was intoxicating, and it changed my life.  If I had known then that I would be lucky enough to sit next to him in the Charlotte Symphony one day, I would have been so happy, I probably would have burst.

"Bob gave everything to everything he did, for me, it was his most admirable attribute.  His capacity to care seemed to be limitless.  When I had questions and needed answers, it was almost compulsory to go ask Bob.  I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do without him in the section.  I will miss him dearly. Thank you so so much for everything you taught me.”


Bob was also our very own in-house sound and recording engineer. He had been making studio quality recordings since the beginning of his musical career. He had his own business and recording equipment, and all the recordings from the CSO passed through Bob’s meticulous care. Frank Dominguez of WDAV remembers that, “Bob gave more than what was expected of a colleague or a business associate. He invested his passion for excellence in every project he ever did. It was impressive, inspiring, and even a little scary. I remember occasionally worrying about how hard he worked and how seriously he took his work.” 

Bob’s recording abilities came in handy in 2020 when suddenly COVID-19 made live performances impossible. He already had most of the tools, and within a few weeks we had video content ready to stream. Bob partnered with Alan Black to capture some beautiful chamber music programs featuring our CSO colleagues in Alan’s backyard, and eventually the “Al Fresco” concerts were offered through the CSO’s platforms, helping us to stay relevant to our communities in such unprecedented times.


As the Covid situation evolved, Bob continued to play a major role. When we were able to be inside together while responsibly distanced, Bob had a wide angle shot and several microphones to capture us. When more of us could be on stage but we still couldn’t have a live audience, Bob enabled us to maintain and grow our audience digitally through fully live-streamed concerts. All of these changes required discussions and committee meetings; early morning set-ups and late evening breakdowns, not to mention editing time and distribution, all of which heavily involved or was handled entirely by Bob. Without his efforts, the CSO could very well have been another casualty of Covid.

Now more than ever, the CSO stands at a precipice: we have just appointed an excellent new artistic leadership in Kwamé Ryan, we are within striking distance of our $50 million goal in a Capital Campaign, and we have just unveiled our Mobile Stage that will allow us easier access to more corners of our community. These great accomplishments are fundamental to our continued organizational health, and none of them were achieved alone. While we have to continue without Bob, we can continue to follow his example and learn from his abilities, work-ethic, capacity for care and commitment to quality. We will have to learn from him in our memories, and he will be missed, on stage and off.

Back In Time:

Adorable Flute Players Edition

Most of us in the symphony started learning our instruments when we were tiny and cute (not that we're not still cute). Time for another round of nostalgia, this time featuring our amazing flute section,Victor Wang, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erinn Frechette, pictured here rocking preteenhood and contemplating their glorious music-filled futures.

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